A Walk in the Woods
These guys still know how to not just hold our attention but grab it, even if their current film needs them more than they need…
I love the Dark Knight Trilogy for one simple reason: it gave me the permission that I didn't know I was looking for to dislike all the rest of the Superhero movies. The high point of my dislike came in the highly ambitious "The Avengers" of this past summer. Don't get the wrong idea: as far as superhero movies go, it is one of the best, or at least it is one of the biggest. But something was wrong. It suffers from the same thing that the whole genre has suffered from. First and foremost, we are watching a bunch of costumed adults pretending that they're children in an expensive suburban Daycare. Second, the genre has otherwise exhausted itself to the point of exciting ritual. Third, the movies in the Dark Knight trilogy are solid and smart entertainment (though not without their flaws).
This essay is inspired by and is building upon the relevant essays and videos by my dear friends and colleagues, Jim Emerson, Mike Mirasol, Pablo Villaça, Steve Boone and Krishna Shenoi. Spoilers abound.
Imagine it for yourself. You're a kid sitting in one of those antiseptic corporate zoos that parents guiltily dump their children into before they head to work to pay for those same Daycare services. And, along comes this bratty kid Loki whose parents have already planned out his overpriced grade school education with focus on three languages. But, that is not enough for Loki; he wants to control the playroom. He wants all the toys. He wants your toys because that is the victim-hood sense of entitlement his parents have fostered in him. So, to stop him, a number of other kids in the Daycare unite with each other, each victims of the same style of absentee parenting. One kid (the Hulk) has a bad temper and gets sent into time out. One kid is the innocent goody-two-shoes (Captain America). One is the nerd who likes to tinker with things (Iron Man). Then, there is the cute little girl (Black Widow) who watches too many reality TV shows with her big sister, tossing her hair side to side like a wannabe magazine cover girl. The result is mayhem that gets cleaned up while everyone is taking their afternoon naps.
Think about it further. There is no acting in Superhero films. There is only overacting. When adults overact, they sound like preschoolers. It was fun in watching Ned Beatty and Valerie Perine in the original "Superman." It was fun watching Peter Parker's editor, Jameson in the "Spider-Man" movies. But, eventually it gets boring. But, the emotional map of almost all of the characters in all of these superheroes is the same simple emotional map of zombie kids in a Daycare. The television show "Arrested Development" featured half a dozen adult characters whose individual emotional developments were arrested at particular ages, even though physiologically they continued to grow into adulthood. Such is the case here: our heroes and villains are emotionally pre-schoolers. On a side note, it follows then, that fanboys aspiring in their imaginations to become superheroes, embrace that same pajama pillow immaturity.
This was the first joy of "Batman Begins." I was watching a serious movie that admitted that it took itself seriously. Focus on the superhero, and we see a man in training to fight his fear. Remove the superhero, and we are watching an interesting dystopian crime film. The other Superhero films of the past decade pretend not to take themselves seriously. But, a one hundred million dollar investment with hopes of a billion dollar return is something every person in each screen credit takes very seriously. Therefore, when the other Superheroes pretend not to take themselves too seriously, they are insulting their audience.
There was a recent exception. The original "Hulk" (2003) film by Ang Lee received critical praise, but was discarded by detractors as essentially boring. It was a serious movie with serious themes about anger and war. And, we know that Ang Lee, like Quentin Tarantino is a genre-iconoclast. Lee makes genre films but defies their conventions, usually on matters of sexuality, gender, and authority. Quentin Tarantino, in contrast, makes Quentin-Tarantino-versions of genre films by guiding us through clever dialogue, wonderfully full characters, and excessive violence: the mobster film "Pulp Fiction," the heist film "Jackie Brown," the Martial Arts "Kill Bill" films, and most recently the war film "Inglorious Basterds." His Western is on its way, and I am trying to imagine the inevitable Quentin Tarantino Superhero film. Robert Altman has his own methods of Genre Iconoclasm. The point is that Ang Lee's "Hulk" succeeded in presenting a substantive story that clashed a bit with conventions of the American Superhero movie genre, but failed to make it interesting for the rest of us.
And, every genre also goes through its own iconoclast processes, where someone comes along and shatters the ritual norms of the genre so completely, that the rest of the world forgets about them. This is, in the language of popular religion, the shift from "religion" to "spirituality," or from "form" to "consciousness." Often believers despair of the seemingly irrelevant strictures of ritual, and jump into ritual-free lives of identity and consciousness, in a different sectarian denomination. In the case of the relevant genre pictures, they shifted from American anthems into revisionist eulogies about complicated broken, betrayed humanity. We shift from stories about heroes seeking justice (i.e. The American Way) to vigilantes in a world of tangled barbwire cutting at our warm-blooded ideals. We saw it in the Western, the War film, and we are watching it in the Superhero film.
Even when hearts, bodies, and societies were wounded, there was a sense of hope, honor, and courage. Shifting from a world of clear moral boundaries, the newer films reflected a world without honor. The newer films chose instead to show the corruption in the traditional heroes. Consider the big iconoclasts of these genres. In the Western we had Altman's somber "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," (1971) followed soon by Eastwood's dark and menacing "High Plains Drifter" (1973). In the War genre, we witnessed the cynicism of Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) and "MASH" (1970) also by Altman, and then we experienced Coppola's maniacal "Apocalypse Now" (1979). The common point here, as far as we are concerned, is that these films inverted the genres by choosing complexity and humanity over seemingly antiquated formalism. Consider even Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," which removed the robotic hyper-enunciated vocalization of the figures in Hollywood's many religious films, and replaced it with more common conversation, mixed with doubt and confusion.
Scorsese's Christ became much more like the Hebrew Prophets, rather than the Biblical exception to them. More than that, the genres themselves shifted from being the form of the narrative, to being the consciousness of the landscape. We categorize the Dark Knight trilogy as a series of Superhero movies, though it might consider itself a series of philosophical crime films. After all, Superhero films are essentially variations on cops and robbers.
In the past few years, there was another attempt at Superhero iconoclasm: Zack Snyder's disgusted and moldy "Watchmen" (2009). It was again a critical success, but its combination of twisted morality, complex philosophy, and unfamiliar superheroes was never going to rein in a large movie going audience.
If all of these genres are essentially about heroes, then the iconoclasm was to remove all the heroes. But, Batman, as we know, is already the Noir Superhero. He is, by definition, already contradicting the rest of the genre as much as Superman embodies it. Nolan's own genre iconoclasm was not to make Batman someone complicated and depraved. Rather, Batman's job was to inspire someone else to become a true hero, and then he could quit. Likewise, the villains were comparably selfless. That is the greatness of this trilogy, but it is also its great weakness.
In the first film, "Batman Begins" (2005), Bruce Wayne provides a response to the paralyzing epidemic of fear, by delivering an antidote. The League of Shadows, in contrast, had one goal: to destroy the morally corrupt Gotham City in order to force it to rebuild from its ashes. Batman's antidote was practical: he delivered a chemical cure to stop the League's hallucinogen. The antidote was also figurative: he was the living antidote to the fear. The problem is that he had to maintain anonymity. Partly to protect his loved ones from harm, partly to inspire all of Gotham to heroism. Both intentions seem to fail in each of the movies.
In the second film, "The Dark Knight" (2008), Bruce Wayne had now inspired many copycat Batmans who were phonies more than heroes. But, in Harvey Dent, he thought he finally found the man of integrity he was hoping to inspire. In the Joker, however, he faced a villain without a goal, except to exploit despair in everyone. He quickly proved that the mobsters were selfish (seeking to profit in the culture of despair), but he failed to prove that the citizens or even the convicts were the same. The citizens and convicts could not bring themselves to give in or give up.
But, in Harvey Dent, the Joker succeeded. Despite repeat viewings, I did not understand the final choices in this film until the trilogy completed: Batman and Commissioner Gordon broke their own imaginary rules of strict morality, by lying to elevate the late Dent as a martyr, while vilifying Batman as a heartless vigilante. The reality is that Batman had been breaking his rules all along. Even when he did not kill, he did not stop crooks from getting killed. In the pursuit of criminals, he had no qualms about destroying Gotham. He also tortured crooks, and eavesdropped on all of Gotham's cell phones. This in itself is a form of despair: giving in to immorality for the sake of some ideals of justice. In a way, even though the Joker was caught, he still accomplished his goal: he broke Batman. Only nobody realized it.
In the third film, we move from fear, to despair, to hope. "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) is all about the powerful - at times illusory - role of hope in a world of gloom. Gotham is now mostly crime free, save for some minor criminals, like Catwoman. But, there is an underlying, growing discontent, for crime might be gone, but legalized abuse still persists. Until we meet the unstoppable Bane, who at first seems to be capitalizing on the discontent against the capitalists. We discover, however, that Bane's role is to complete the work of the League of Shadows. And, what comes of it? Batman and Bane destroy so much of Gotham, even without a nuclear bomb. Meanwhile, among the citizens, many rise up against the villains. One particular cop rises up, however, as the unbreakable hero. Unlike Dent, when this cop Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) watches his ideals get shattered, learning about Commissioner Gordon's lies around Harvey Dent, he does not despair. Batman accomplishes his goal seeing hope rising from the ashes of Gotham City. But considering that Gotham is so much in flames, it seems that perhaps the League of Shadows still accomplished its goals almost as well as Batman did.
All of the heroes of the trilogy are essentially selfless servants, seeking to save the people of Gotham. And in this way, these movies are consistent with the rest of the Superhero movies. Primarily, I am speaking of course of Batman, but also of those who are supporting him, including Gordon, Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), even Rachel Dawes, Alfred, and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
But, interestingly, all of the primary villains are comparably "selfless," and it is here that the "Dark Knight" trilogy parts from the rest of the Superhero movies. Except for the lower level crooks, like the Falcones, Lau or the crooked cops, can you name any criminal in these movies that was seeking any sort of personal gain, either in profit, power, or prestige? Ra's al-Ghul and the League of Shadows are, in their minds, keepers of order. They are, in their minds, seeking to save Gotham. By the end of the trilogy, Ra's al-Ghul is revealed as a man with a flawed conscience, but still a conscience. Even Bane sheds a tear.
As for the final scene of TDKR, at first I hoped that Nolan would take the queue from the spinning-top scene in his "Inception." Alfred would sit down in the café, and see someone, but we would not cut to find out it was Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (former Catwoman). That ending would be cute, and would generate conversation and tweets. But, that ending would not be appropriate for this series. From the start, the series had the conviction that fear could be cured, that people were inherently good, and that hope could win. It was necessary not only for Alfred to see Bruce, but it was even more necessary for Bruce to be with Selina, for she was straddling the line between hope and despair, and in the end chose hope. And, in the end, Bruce finally found his mate.
But, that final scene also sums up the problem with the trilogy. As is the case with recent M. Night Shyamalan films, the Dark Knight trilogy's philosophy started to overtake the drama. I had to explain - first to myself - why that final scene worked in TDKR. But dramatically, it was irrelevant and predictable. When Alfred sits in the café, and notices the couple, that moment was so predictable, that I was glued to the screen expecting to see something unexpected, only to witness the expected. Prior to that scene, the third film's big reveals were almost all predictable. Essentially, the climax of the film was assembled by moments of great excitement, mixed with moments of predictable revelations. That the kid who escaped the prison was Miranda (and not Bane), and that she was Ra's al-Ghul's daughter, was obvious. That Blake was going to be Robin, was even more obvious. That Bruce Wayne would eventually escape from the inescapable prison was, of course, the most obvious. Even a politician would be able to figure out these plot points.
All three films suffer from a repeated problem in Nolan's films: the action - specifically the fighting - lacks a sense of choreography. The "Bat" copter has elegance in its flight. The Batmobile Tumbler has the grumbling quality of a toned, muscular fist ready to punch through a wall. But, the fisticuffs seems clumsy and shoddy. Most of the camera shots are medium shots, preventing us from appreciating any sense of grace. All this applies most in the third film because we are speaking of the best of the League of Shadows: Bane and Batman are not just ninjas, they are Superninjas, but they fight like a couple of palookas in an empty high school gym. Even when Catwoman would do one of her cartwheels, the camera would cut away, cutting away the joy of the moment.
Others complain that Nolan's exposition is too verbal. I don't mind it. There is a notion that films should be shown, not told. I tend to think that films that are told often grant far more satisfaction in multiple viewings, assuming that they can earn the repeat viewings in the first place. It took me a few viewings to understand the plot in TDK, and I still did not understand it all until TDKR. I suspect that I will understand what seems to be the convoluted plot of TDKR after a few more viewings. Still, I have to complain that every time an ally asks Batman for his real identity, he does not say "I'm Bruce Wayne." Instead, he says something abstract, and well, lame.
That is not to take away from the expressed non-verbal of the films. Bane was a frightening villain from the moment we first heard his voice. In his slow, deliberate stillness, I found him far more frightening than the erratic genius of the Joker. But, if the simple way to weaken him was to disconnect the cables in his nebulizer - which should have been obvious - then Batman should have shot some bat hook at his face. But, instead he decided to punch him. And by the way, am I expected to believe that the rest of the nation remained powerless against Bane? This recalls the big hole in the original "Red Dawn," where the Soviets invade a small town, but seem to be ignored by the rest of the country. And, since we are on this subject, am I expected to believe that the employees at Wayne Enterprises, who assembled all of the Bat toys (the Tumbler, the Flying thing, the suit, the cape) would not recognize its use on the streets of Gotham? Perhaps the construction was outsourced to some people who do not have internet access.
And, in watching TDKR, I felt the way I felt in watching "Return of the Jedi" as well as "Toy Story 3" (which took place in a Daycare center, by the way). The sense of completion in these trilogies often seems mechanical, if not forced. "Return of the Jedi" in particular, had its fun moments with the Emperor, yet it also had the Ewoks and its finale with X-Wing Fighters shooting Chinese Fireworks. Such was the case with "The Dark Knight Rises." It did not have Ewoks, but instead had the Nuclear-Bomb-Electromagnetic-Pulse plot which seems to appear in action pictures every decade or so. There has to be other ways to dismantle Nuclear weapons.
So, will the Dark Knight Trilogy successfully shake the dust off the genre? I do not know. I hope so. Like half the world, I have watched all the major superhero movies from the past thirtysomething years. Essentially, the main thing I am asking for is a substance over childishness. Let us remember that the storyteller behind "The Avengers" is Joss Whedon, who has his own gifts of narrative. If that substance is given, then I'll tolerate the adults jumping around like stupid lunatics at a little kid's sleepover party.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
An obituary for Wes Craven.
A piece on the response to the sexism in "Straight Outta Compton."
Scout Tafoya's Unloved series continues with Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous."